Bullish Ashdown vows to put the backbone into Blair

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS IN BRIGHTON
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The Independent Online
Paddy Ashdown yesterday offered voters Liberal Democrat hope - as an alternative to Tory fear and Labour timidity - with a clear suggestion that he could help inject backbone into a Blair government.

Evoking the Churchill spirit in a rollicking speech that gave his Brighton party conference a clear sense of direction, Mr Ashdown said John Major had left the country with no voice or leadership, a lion without a roar.

"This country is not the mean, selfish, uncompassionate nation the Tories have tried to make us these last 17 years," he said. "But the true spirit of our country will remain hidden, untapped, if the only choice we are offered is the choice between fear and timidity."

Fear was the Tory trademark, he said: "Fear is their only weapon."

"Now there is only one antidote to fear - and that is hope." And in one of a number of specific attacks on Labour, he added: "Labour seems to have chosen timidity."

Repeating the refrain, "with the Liberal Democrats strong in the next Parliament", Mr Ashdown made a clear offer of help in guaranteeing that action was taken on a number of priority issues.

With the Liberal Democrats strong in the next Parliament, he said, investment in education would be guaranteed, the welfare system would be reformed, environmental pollution would be tackled, there would be a crime-busting plan for each community, the country would pursue a clear course on Europe, the constitution would be reformed, and trust would be rebuilt in British politics.

"We could, of course, go on ducking the issues for a little longer," he said. "We could decide that more money in our pockets is more important than more knowledge in our children's heads. We could stagger on with our discredited system of government.

"We could carry on polluting our environment, and postpone living more lightly on our planet. We could carry on fooling ourselves about our place in Europe and the wider world.

"But deep down, everyone knows the longer we duck these decisions, the higher the price we pay in the next century.

"My fear is this: that we shall see an election, and maybe a change of government - but we shall not see a change of direction. We shall still be starved of clear vision, a commitment to change, the courage to face up to what must be done. It is the first crucial role of this party to see that that does not happen.

"With the Liberal Democrats strong in the next Parliament, Britain will face the challenges that confront us. Without, they'll continue to be ducked."

As for his own vision, Mr Ashdown said that every single Liberal Democrat policy was dedicated to a central purpose. The aim, he said, was to help people "fulfil themselves; to find the hero in themselves; to become self-reliant and self-confident; to make, together, such a contribution to society that the nation as a whole becomes more self-reliant and more self-confident."

The speech was preceded by a film showing Mr Ashdown as the leader who listens to the people - in what some delegates mistakenly took to be a mocking parody of Labour's 1987 election broadcast, Kinnock.

But the conference was clearly delighted by a performance that gave coherence to a conference that had been left perplexed by the party's potential role after the next election.

Returning to that point, he said: "The great cause of reform is not safe in Labour's hands. Our task is to make sure this election is one in which the great issues are faced, not fudged."

Mr Ashdown said there was only one standard for success that he could accept. "And that is whether what we say, and what we do, makes Britain better and improves the lives of those we serve." He clearly sees the role his party can play in the next Parliament, and the influence it can bring to bear on a Blair government, as the means of achieving that end.

Leading article, page 13

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